The USF football team is no different from the 116 other teams across the Division I-A landscape right now — they have many unanswered questions. But some of the questions will begin to get answered today as the Bulls open spring practice at 4 p.m. The workout is the first of 14 practices before the team plays its annual spring game at Raymond James Stadium April 12.
The objective for the Bulls during that time is simple.
“Get better,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It’s such a buy-in answer, but it’s the truth. We’re going into Conference USA, and the odds are against us. We need to be better than ever before.
“We need to find a quarterback. Ronnie Banks will look to lead us, but we need to find a backup between Jean Julmiste and David Mullins. We also need to replace our entire front four, our middle linebacker and a return man for DeAndrew Rubin.”
The biggest question is the one that has dogged the Bulls for four years: Who will replace Marquel Blackwell at quarterback? It took Blackwell three games into his freshman season to grab the starting spot, and he never let go until graduating. So, for the first time since 1999, someone other than Blackwell will take the first snap of the game.
Banks, who will be a fourth-year junior in the fall, appears to be the only choice. Besides Blackwell, he and Mullins were the only other players to throw passes for USF in 2002.
Mullins struggled mightily in two brief appearances, throwing six passes with no completions and two interceptions. Banks flashed his skills by leading the Bulls to their lone scores against Arkansas and Oklahoma, but both of those were in mop-up duty with the Bulls trailing badly. As a sophomore, Banks appeared in six games, compiling a 182.71 efficiency rating. He completed 61.1 percent of his passes (11-of-18) with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. In two seasons, Banks has played in 13 games, but attempted just 40 passes.
“It’s exciting really,” Leavitt said. “Marquel was here a long time. We’re not replacing him. Ronnie just needs to do what he can do.
“He’s No. 1 right now, no question. Ronnie does not have anything to prove to me. He’s got to prove it to the football team.”
The situation is much cloudier on the defensive line, as there are a host of candidates, but all come with little experience. Terrence Royal made waves as a true freshman by displacing Shurron Pierson at one defensive end in the opener, but the two ended up splitting time for the rest of the season. The duo probably would have started together this season, but Pierson left early for the NFL Draft. Tim Jones started the 2002 season opener against Florida Atlantic at tight end, but when Emerson Morris’ broken leg forced him to retire, Jones moved to the defensive side of the ball. The switch suited the junior from Lakeland, as he established himself by picking up five sacks and eight tackles for loss in limited playing time.
Tackle is far worse off, as the options are many, but so too are the questions. Senior Cedric Battles, junior Howard Campbell, 300-pound redshirt freshman Ramon McCullough, sophomore Kenny Huebner and junior Matt Groelinger are all vying for the starting roles. However, none have the experience since Greg Walls and Tavares Jurineack anchored the defensive line for the better part of three seasons.
An intriguing possibility is senior Lee Roy Selmon Jr., but he hasn’t played in two years after redshirting in 2001 and suffering a preseason torn anterior cruciate ligament a year ago.
USF enters the spring remarkably free of injury. Cornerback Ron Hemingway and left tackle Derrick Sarosi, both starters nursing shoulder injuries, should be the lone Bulls not participating in spring drills. Center Jason Lehman (chest), wide receivers Travis Lipp (cut on his leg) and Kevin Patullo (hernias), guard Mark Sopcik (foot) and tight end Casey Cobb are the other Bulls tending to injuries that may stunt their development this spring.
“Everyone needs to take a big (leap),” Leavitt said. “Spring practice is critical. What other time than during the season can they do that?
“I expect a great deal of progress.”
Anthony Gagliano covers USF football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org